Borrowing our friends' electric

| 16 Sep 2011

As culture shocks go, it was like the Queen doing a trolley dash in Lidl.

The Royal Mail had failed to understand quite how important it was to deliver my Jensen Interceptor wheel bearings the very next day and with a stranded V8 GT up on axle stands, I was forced to beg the indulgence of sister mag What Car?

Did they have a car to lend me for the night?

They did. I looked out into the Haymarket car park and surveyed their wares – there was some tasty stuff out there, even a Merc CLS 63 AMG, with the 6.3 litres that I am used to. This might not be so bad.

Then, with an evil twinkle in their eye, they offered me the Nissan Leaf. Brilliant I thought… and then went and Googled it. This car has no cylinders and no capacity, just 48 batteries providing an alleged 120hp. This car is the polar opposite of the Jensen.

After they teach me how to drive it (suppressing giggles at my inability to master stuff that isn't unique to the battery-powered Leaf, but any new car, like keyless ignition – where are you meant to put the keys? – and electronic handbrake control things), I silently whisper off into the evening.

Truth be told, it was a revelation. The last electric car I had tried was an early Th!nk and that was like driving into the Somme in a Dora the Explorer lunchbox, so the Leaf was a world apart. "It's like a proper car," they said and they were sort of right, it was certainly less like an appliance than I expected, except I was still wondering why none of them wanted to take it home.

You get a low centre of gravity, superb comfort and all sorts. As soon as you get over all the hang-ups, like the fear of opening the electric windows, indicating or turning on the radio lest the range predictor plummets, and the feeling that you have stalled every time you pull up, it is fine. In fact, after the projected range bungee-jumped 20 miles in my first 300 yards, it not only settled, but started to go up again.

When those little paranoias pass, there are a whole load of new ones to cope with, like the fact that no one can hear you coming. I got cut up twice, nearly bludgeoned a couple or pedestrians and ended my mere seven-mile journey home squinting at cyclists, trying to make sure that they didn't have headphones in before daring to overtake.

Quiet? You betcha. Unnervingly so. The only things worrying me about the car, bearing in mind that performance envelopes, like my wheel bearings, would remain resolutely undelivered, were the nasty clunk on acceleration and deceleration. At least until I discovered the oddments box under the armrest and the single wheelnut rolling around within it.

But it isn't just the silence. It makes no logical sense that being inaudible would also make you invisible, but that is how it feels – like you are surreptitiously, almost dishonestly stealthing your way through traffic – and that is how you start to drive, nipping up the inside like an arse as if no one can see you. But they can and they view you with scorn.

If you thought that Prius owners were on the receiving end of some withering glances, looks that say "you sanctimonious, self-righteous p***k", then try a Leaf.

So that is yet another perception that will need to be turned on its head before these old-fangled electric cars (La Jamais Contente anyone?) can take off. Once they have conquered the drivers, they then have to overcome the cyclists, pedestrians and other motorists who abandon all road safety when they can't actually hear an engine.

Then, of course, they can start to tackle the general animosity towards them, and the fact (and it is a fact) that no one can quite get their head around the concept of driving, using as an actual conveyance to travel 100 miles, something that you power up by unplugging a toaster so you can use the socket. It just doesn't compute.

My conclusion is that the Leaf is mightily impressive, not as a road warrior, obviously, but as transport when the dark days come and actual cars are illegal, it will do the job in a very proficient but ugly way. Thanks to its constant, healthy torque it dispatched the Richmond Hillclimb (Nightingale Lane) effortlessly and gave me as relaxed a commute as I can remember.

In fact, given my town driving routine, the Leaf makes perfect sense.

Not for me though (how predictable is that?)

I enjoyed my time with it, but as I sped between Haymarket HQ –and its charging post erected because of the ohms-rushing manufacturers' insistence on foisting electric cars upon the very people likely to be least receptive to them – and the free charging post in Putney Leisure Centre, two minutes walk down the road from my house, I could only think of the Enfield Electric.

Its range may not be that of the Leaf (the Enfield 8000 was good for 40 miles per charge at best), but it would still get there, free, and be a classic, and be a 10th of the price of the £25k (yes, £25,000) Nissan.

Like so many classic fans, I suspect that I am beyond salvation. And I am not ready to make a volt(e) face (geddit?) just yet.